Singin' in the Rain, and how Paris fell in love with US musicals

PARIS, FRANCE, Eric Randolph- A sold-out theatre run in Paris for "Singin' in the Rain", which opens Thursday, marks another success for American musicals in a country where they once attracted sneers.
"In France we are experts at creating categories -- there is culture and there is entertainment," said Jean-Luc Choplin, who runs the Chatelet Theatre where the musical based on the 1950s Gene Kelly classic will run for two weeks this month.

"The fight here at the Chatelet is to break these walls down."
When Choplin took over the theatre in 2006, the idea of putting on American musicals on the banks of the Seine, just a stone's throw from Notre Dame Cathedral and the Louvre museum, was tantamount to cultural barbarity.
"Musicals were a four-letter word before Jean-Luc started. It was impossible, no one would take it seriously," said Robert Carsen, the Canadian director of "Singin' in the Rain", his third musical production at the Chatelet.
"The genre was depreciated, even despised."
- 'Same respect as opera' -
Although the Chatelet produced several American musicals during their golden age in the 1920s and 30s, they had long fallen out of fashion in France.
"Parisians who claim to be at the forefront of the artistic scene didn't even know who Stephen Sondheim was," said Choplin, referring to the legendary American composer.
To counter any Parisian snootiness, Choplin enlisted illustrious names from the world of opera and ballet, including Carsen who had made his name with international productions of Puccini, Wagner and Verdi.
"To me musicals deserve the same respect as opera: their extraordinary scores should be celebrated with big symphonic orchestras and operatic voices," said Choplin.
It has been a roaring public success in Paris, and it is even giving back to the London and New York theatres from which it borrowed, with last year's Chatelet Theatre production of "An American in Paris" transferring to Broadway this week.
On some measures, Paris now surpasses the better-known homes of musical theatre -- particularly on the size of orchestras, which tend to number around a dozen members or less on Broadway and the West End.
"Here, I stand in front of an orchestra of 42 well-finessed musicians and to hear that score is phenomenal," said Gareth Valentine, musical director on "Singin' in the Rain".
It has made Sondheim a particular fan of the Chatelet, added Choplin.
"He says to me: 'It's the only opportunity I have to hear my music'."
- 'Most complex artform' -
Carsen and Choplin's partnership goes back over two decades to an unlikely start at Disneyland Paris.
"He asked me to conceive a production called 'Buffalo Bill's Wild West' that opened in April 1992. It was supposed to run for two years -- but it is still running," said Carsen, laughing.
"Had I known, I would have tried to break Disney's embargo on paying royalties!"
Their relationship has come a long way since then, with Carsen directing "Candide" and "My Fair Lady" at the Chatelet.
"Musicals are the most complex artform because it puts together everything in equal doses -- dance, music, acting," he said.
For his production of "Singin' in the Rain", he decided to ditch the bright, hyper-colourful look of the Gene Kelly Hollywood classic.
At a recent rehearsal, Carsen's decision to colour his show in rich monochrome was on full display, in keeping with the story that follows the transition from silent movies to "talkies".
"I insisted on bringing our stage production back to 1927 (when the film is set)," said Carsen. "It is an evocation of black and white movies."
Other innovations come from choreographer Stephen Mear, who has brought a more jazz style to the famous scene under the rain, and included some 1920s dances like the "hot box".
After its two-week run ends, "Singin' in the Rain" is due to return to Paris for a two-month spell in November.

Friday, March 13th 2015
Eric Randolph

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